The Return of the SAM Railroad

Once they wove a web across the land, running north to south, east to west and all directions in between.   The wails of "choo-choo" and the rings of "clang clang" are few now.  The great "Iron Horse" no longer dominates the landscape of the Georgia countryside, but down in South Georgia, you can step back in time more than a half century and climb aboard a real life -  sure enough choo-choo train.  It is the SAM Shortline and its tri-city ride will propel you backwards in time to a day when life was a little slower and travel a little less comfortable, but oh so much more exciting.  

The origin of the SAM railroad grew out ouf Samuel Hawkins disdain for monopolistic railroad rates of the South Western Railroad in the years following the Civil War.  Hawkins, an Americus lawyer and financier,   suggested statewide regulation of railroads, a position which resulted in the name of Americus being removed from regulation railroad maps.    First known as the AP & L (Americus, Preston and Lumpkin) Railroad, the line was expanded after two years in 1886 to Abbeville on the western banks of the Ocmulgee River.    The railroad established an inland port at Abbeville, shipping goods downstream to Darien on the Atlantic coast.  When the railroad was extended to Savannah as its eastern terminus and Montgomery, Alabama at its western most point, the railroad changed its name to reflect the main cities along its line to Savannah, Americus and Montgomery, and the name of its founder, or SAM for short. From Abbeville, the SAM Railroad ran through Rhine, Milan, Helena, Alamo, Mt. Vernon,  Vidalia and Lyons, giving the shippers and passengers from the lower end of the Oconee & Ocmulgee regions their first direct route to the port city of Savannah.

The coming of the 21st Century saw the rebirth of the SAM Railroad.  Now known as the S.A.M. Shortline, the state owned railroad is actually a rolling state park.  The Georgia Legislature created the Southwest Georgia Railroad Excursion Authority to operate a passenger train from Cordele to Plains, where the rail line got very influential support from President Jimmy Carter.

A few weekends ago, I got the opportunity to ride the SAM with a group of Dubliners.  We were there to explore the possibility of bringing the train and its entire crew to Dublin next winter for a train excursion to Macon.    We arrived more than the requisite 15 minutes early, only to find long lines of passengers anxious to get aboard.   After a brief stop at the ticket booth in the visitor's center in Cordele, we boarded the train.  Boarding from the front of the train, we got to see nearly the entire train.  Each car is dedicated to stops along the route.  Especially attractive was the Georgia Veteran's State Park car, which was decorated in a style reminiscent of a train during the years of World War II.  

Near the end of the regular passenger cars is the commissary car.  It is a place where you can get something highly sweet or highly fattening, but oh so good, to eat.  Plenty of candy, pop corn, drinks and an assortment of goodies are served by a friendly crew.  Behind the commissary car are the premium seating cars.  The first car, a more modern vintage of rail car has tables and chairs for eating, sitting or a game of cards.  If you don't bring your own deck, there are cards available in the commissary.

The most gorgeous of all of the cars in the "Samuel H. Hawkins."  Located in the rear of the train on the first leg of the trip and at the front on the return trip, this 1939 vintage car was built as a tavern-observation car for the Florida East Coast Railroad.   Known formerly as "The Bay Biscyane," the wood paneled car features Art Deco sconce lights between the windows and wooden tables and chairs.  There are plans to restore the car to its original state during this fall and winter.  If you are lucky enough, it is best place on the train, when the train's second engine is not attached, giving the passenger a panoramic view of the countryside. 

Once we left Cordele, the train ran along tracks surrounded by kudzu, morning glory and a wide variety of wild flowers, interrupted by groves of pines, oaky swamps, and fields of sorghum, peanuts and cotton.  One cotton field seemed to radiate a mile or more in every direction from the train track.  As we passed through intersections, the occupants of the cars waved and smiled, knowing that we were spending our dollars in the community and that every day hence there would be more of us coming. 

Our first stop was at Georgia Veteran's State Park, where the train sleeps at night.  The Park on the shores of Lake Blackshear features a museum saluting the men and women of Georgia who have served in the military.  After crossing the picturesque lake where cypress trees grow right out of the edge of the water, we came to the town of Leslie.  We didn't stop on this day and missed the world's largest rural telephone museum.  

Our first layover came in Americus.   We had to take a side track to get closer to the downtown area.  We hopped aboard a shuttle and road through the downtown area.  You can eat at a variety of fine restaurants or chose to eat in the luxurious Windsor Hotel, a national historic site and a certified haunted hotel.  The 1892 hotel features a three story atrium adorned by beautiful wooden columns, rails and beams.  In the grand dining room, we feasted on a diet of roast beef, fried and baked chicken, mashed potatoes, collard greens, banana pudding, apple cobbler, coconut and chocolate cake.  For the dieters in the crowd, there is a fine salad bar.

We hurried back to the train for the ride to the second stop of the day, the town of Plains, Georgia.  The site of the home of former President Jimmy Carter, Plains still retains a touch of the atmosphere of those days in the 1970s when the sleepy little town became the focus of the presidential campaign.  While in town, you can visit antique shops, a caf‚ and a department store, where you can treat your self to fried peanuts, peanut ice cream, peanut brittle and all sorts of peanut butter, including that ever popular Cajun peanut butter.  If you hustle or just stay over for a while, you can walk to Plains High School, where the President attended in the late 1930s.  

The last leg of the trip took us to Archery, the boyhood home of President Carter.  There you can see and walk through the president's former home.  The outbuildings and grounds have been re-created to give the visitor some idea of how the farm may have looked  during the twenty one years it was occupied by the Carter family.  Of special interest is the restored commissary store, which the Carter's operated to make extra money.  There's even a piece of half shucked corn and unpicked peanuts hanging on the fence, just to show the Yankee's how they look before they are cooked.

I highly recommend the trip and hope we can bring the train to Dublin very soon.  I especially want to thank the volunteers who gave their time to make the trip a pleasant one.  If you are lucky, you might get the knowledgeable and affable Tom Nicholson, a native of Dodge County and hotel manager, to be your car host.  Then there's Bill Byrd, an Americus hospital administrator, who serves as the trainman.  Byrd insures that everything on the train operates smoothly and efficiently.  And finally, you'll get your ticket punched by Al Mills, a friendly and witty  guy whose uniform makes him look he was born to be a ticket taker.